Undoing Saddam: From Occupation to Sovereignty in Northern Iraq
by Wayne H. Bowen
(Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2007), 210 pp.

Reviewed by Joseph Morrison Skelly, Ph.D., Associate Professor of History, College of Mount Saint Vincent, New York, NY.

June 30, 2009 marked a milestone in the course of Operation Iraqi Freedom, with the handover of authority in urban areas to Iraqi troops and the repositioning of American combat forces from cities to outposts in rural locations. These tactical moves were made possible by the strategic success of the “surge” that commenced in the spring of 2007. It was, in effect, the operational application of the U.S. military’s new counterinsurgency doctrine, which is articulated in Field Manual 3-24 and was recently published in book form by the University of Chicago Press as The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual.

Before General David Petraeus and his team developed and implemented the surge, however, American soldiers in Iraq were holding the line against a nascent insurgency and shaping the battlespace in a manner that would contribute to the success of the new warfighting doctrine in 2007 and beyond. Wayne H. Bowen was one of them. An officer in the United States Army Reserve, as well as department chair and professor of history at Southeast Missouri State University, Bowen spent eight months in Northern Iraq in 2004 as a Civil Affairs team leader, which he chronicles in this outstanding memoir of a time during which his leadership and tactical ingenuity enabled the U.S. forces in his area of operations to stand fast against an emerging threat.

Undoing Saddam: From Occupation to Sovereignty in Northern Iraq is highly recommended for numerous reasons, but of special interest is Bowen’s work rehabilitating Iraqi universities, which has been an intrinsic aspect of the U.S. Army’s civil affairs mission in the country. In March, 2004 for example, he met with representatives from the University of Mosul, Mosul Technical Institute, Mosul Technical College, and Nineveh Technical Institute in order to organize student government elections “for the first time in their history. Previous voting was in the hands of the Baathist university sections, which used the occasions to handpick favored students for the offices.” A conundrum did arise: “‘What if bad people win, radicals or supporters of terrorism?’ one dean asked [him]. ‘May we postpone the voting until the security situation improves or cancel it altogether?’” Bowen wisely counseled his university colleagues to support the elections, reminding them that the guidelines from the Ministry of Higher Education in Baghdad provided safeguards against militant candidates; together they thus set an important democratic precedent and established a baseline of academic freedom in a newly liberated Iraq.

Bowen and his colleagues addressed a multitude of needs at Iraqi universities by funding rebuilding projects, meeting regularly with professors and staff, and directing Coalition resources to campuses across the region. He traveled to Kurdistan to meet with university officials in Erbil. At the University of Kirkuk he had to navigate the “tug of war between Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen over the fate of the university” in that mixed, oil-rich city.

One of Bowen’s greatest challenges on college campuses was revitalizing the crumbling infrastructure. After a visit to the main library of the University of Mosul he wrote, “The building needs serious help … The overall impression is that of a once-noble institution frozen in 1980, the year the Iran-Iraq War began … what had been a world-class library received almost no support or infusions of knowledge after that year.” This challenge was complicated by the fact that Bowen had to thaw a frosty relationship with its chancellor, Saadallah Tawfiq Suleiman, an “Islamist who does not encourage debate or democratic thought.” He successfully overcame this obstacle by opening direct channels of communication to numerous deans and faculty members who welcomed the opportunity to develop a partnership with an American representative that furthered their shared interests.

The author’s work reconstructing universities in Northern Iraq represents an essential element in the U.S. government’s campaign to foster a democratic civil society in post-Saddam Iraq, and the Middle East generally, as a viable alternative to the stagnation of Baathism, the corruption of autocratic rule, and the destructiveness of Islamism. This aspect of Bowen’s book is important in the context of literature about the early phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom. It is a corrective to biased accounts like Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, by Thomas E. Ricks, and it widens the scope of university redevelopment found in John Agresto’s Mugged By Reality: The Liberation of Iraq and the Failure of Good Intentions, whose Baghdad-centric perspective does not capture the complexity and richness of university life in the country in the way that Bowen’s memoir certainly does.

Other dimensions of this volume are quite compelling. In addition to his educational duties, Bowen was responsible for overseeing the wide array of antiquities in Nineveh province, a place resonating in historical references to ancient Mesopotamia, “including the ruins of Assyrian King Sennacherib’s palace, King Ashurbanipal’s complex at Nimrud, and over one thousand other archaeological sites.” This part of his mission complements the efforts of Matthew Bogdanos, an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps who recounts his restoration of looted artifacts to the Iraqi National Museum in his well received book Thieves of Baghdad.

Early in his deployment Bowen lent assistance to the Iraq Survey Group’s search for weapons of mass destruction by facilitating meetings with administrators and faculty at the University of Mosul, which was a major scientific research center before the Persian Gulf War. His depiction of the unfolding security situation in Mosul is very important, not only in the light of current events there, where American and Iraqi forces are battling one of the few remaining pockets of terrorists, but also because it documents the opening rounds of the insurgency in 2004, when Mosul evolved from a place that was “pretty quiet” in April to a city rocked by four simultaneous car-bombs (or VBIEDs: vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices) two months later.

The authors of some memoirs have a tendency to indulge in flights of fancy when reflecting on their time spent in foreign lands. Much to his credit, Bowen keeps his feet on the ground at all times. This is especially the case when discussing the role that the Iraqi people must play in their own future. For all of “the help I have been able to provide to higher education and antiquities,” he writes, “the responsibility for this country still rests with the Iraqis. If they want a peaceful and stable country which embraces the democratic process, they will have to make this experiment work. There are too few of us and too many of them for us to control much more than the surface of Iraq’s modernization, even if we wanted to remain in charge of this nation, which by all accounts we do not.” This is all true. American Army officers like Bowen, in a spirit of shared mutual interest, have helped the Iraqi people initiate the transition from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein to the liberty of self-rule, but the next steps in this journey are now up to them.